Questions cloud debate over asphalt plant BoDean Co. in Santa Rosa

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An effort to clear the air over a controversial Santa Rosa asphalt plant left City Council members with more questions than answers Tuesday.

The study session, requested by the council in August, was supposed to bring clarity to a number of lingering land use and public health questions surrounding operations of BoDean Co.’s Maxwell Drive facility.

The plant has long been a source of odor, noise, dust and traffic complaints from neighbors in adjacent residential areas, many of whom say the plant belongs elsewhere.

But council members came away confused by some of the answers they received Tuesday and frustrated that neighbors seemed to have a better grasp of the regulatory history for the property than government officials.

“We’ve got some work to do here,” City Manager Sean McGlynn acknowledged.

That remark came after Councilman Tom Schwedhelm couldn’t get a clear answer from David Farr, an inspector from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, about which agency residents should call with health concerns about the air quality around the plant.

Councilwoman Julie Combs was similarly frustrated when a planning official couldn’t say whether previous permits for the plant restricted operating hours.

The issue has been central to neighbors’ concerns about the plant, which BoDean officials contend has the right to operate at any time of the day or night, seven days a week. But Clare Hartman, deputy director of planning, said she hadn’t reviewed the issue of hours of operation before 2012, when the city approved the installation of three 82-foot-high storage towers.

“I’m actually a little surprised to hear this today, and a little disappointed,” Combs said.

Combs referred to city documents supplied to her and other council members by neighbors that suggested there had been limits on operating hours in the past. She noted that in 1969, the City Council allowed the plant to begin operating at 6 a.m. in recognition that “their heavy season is about to begin,” and a 1987 permit application listed operating hours of “6 a.m. to 6 p.m.”

BoDean General Manager Bill Williams disputed the meaning of those documents, claiming the hours referred only to office hours, not the hours that the plant can make and deliver asphalt, which is often needed for nighttime paving projects.

“No permit ever addresses hours of operations. Period,” Williams said.

But city staff offered no such clear conclusion. McGlynn apologized and said part of the purpose of the session was to figure out what questions the council wanted answered and to get back to members with specific answers.

Councilman Chris Coursey asked what seemed like a straightforward question, but the answer was far from simple.

He asked City Attorney Caroline Fowler whether the city had the right to shut down the plant if it was out of compliance with the city noise ordinance, which it happens to be.

Her answer was that it depends on how much out of compliance the plant is and how strong the city’s noise ordinance is. She also noted that the city had not brought such a case in “many, many years.”

“To try to shut down a business of this magnitude based on the information that we have would not be able to be done without going to court, and there would be significant legal hurdles,” Fowler said.

The lack of clear answers about BoDean is in some ways a reflection of the changes in the management of the city’s code compliance department, which has been moved to another department, and the complex land use history of the property. The operation stretches back to 1953, when it was a yard for construction materials and asphalt in the unincorporated county.

After annexation to the city, the property received permits to operate in 1961, 1967, 1968, 1970, 1987, and most recently in 2012. The property is considered grandfathered as a “legal non-conforming use,” meaning it has the right to continue under restrictions with the goal of one day phasing the land into another use.

West End residents want that transition to happen sooner rather than later. They argue that the asphalt plant has gradually expanded its operations over the decades, which they say is barred for grandfathered properties.

Lea Barron-Thomas, wife of Allen Thomas, who is organizing the opposition to the plant, likened the plant to a camel slowly pushing its nose under the tent.

“BoDean is in the tent. And now we’re trying to make him comfortable instead of saying ‘Hey, you’re not even supposed to be in the tent,’ ” Barron-Thomas said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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